There is a peculiarity about the discussion of what is often called the “new anti-Semitism” or “Israelophobia” that few seem to have noticed. If the concept is taken to mean an unhinged hostility to Israel as a coded form of anti-Semitism then it goes back to the late 1960s. But if it is decades old it cannot explain why there has been such a visceral surge of Jew hatred since 7 October last year. 

To examine this question properly it is first necessary to lay out some of the key terms. 

Classical European anti-Semitism, which emerged as a form of racial theory in the nineteenth century, hated Jews as Jews. It saw Jews as, among other things, a social parasite which was threatening to bring about the decomposition of the Aryan race. There was clearly no focus on Israel since it was not even founded until 1948. 

In contrast, the new anti-Semitism has historically not attacked Jews as Jews (although that has started to change). Explicit Jew hatred of that type was generally discredited in mainstream society by the horrors of the Holocaust. Only the extreme right held on to the traditional overt hostility to Jews as Jews. 

That does not mean that there was no hatred of Jews on the left. However, where it did exist, particularly from the late 1960s onwards, it was generally expressed in the coded form of a virulent hatred of Israel.

The word “virulent” is important in the last sentence. Criticism of Israel by the same standards as any other nation does not constitute anti-Semitism. It is not anti-Semitic to disagree with Israel’s policies or to dislike its government. Nor is it anti-Semitic to call for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. It crosses the line into anti-Semitism when Israel is seen as representing evil in the struggle against all that is good in the world.

Contemporary anti-Zionists fail to recognise this view of Israel as a malevolent force as a form of anti-Semitism. They insist, on the contrary, that they are opposed to anti-Semitism because they reject hostility to Jews as Jews or Jews per se. They have a blinkered view of what constitutes anti-Semitism.

The new anti-Semitism emerged in the late 1960s as the result of the coincidence of two factors. In the West there was the rise of the new left with an often hostile attitude to Israel. In the Middle East there was Israel’s spectacular victory over its Arab neighbours in the 1967 Six Day War.

In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War the left, particularly in America, was generally pro-Israel. It saw the Jewish state as representing the realisation of the right of the Jewish people to national self-determination. The American civil rights movement, for example, was avidly supportive of Israel.

This began to change with the emergence of the new left from the counter-culture of the 1960s. This new generation of leftists typically saw itself as more into international solidarity than national self-determination. Its rise was set against the anti-colonial struggles in Algeria and Vietnam.

It was against this backdrop that the 1967 Six Day War helped precipitate a shift in attitude among the western left. Israel had captured the West Bank from Jordan and the Gaza strip from Egypt. It therefore significantly expanded its territory, made its borders more defensible and brought many more Palestinians under its control. From Israel’s perspective it was defending itself from frequent annihilationist threats from the neighbouring Arab states. For the western left it meant Israel was increasingly seen as a colonial power in its own right.

The 1967 war changed the discussion on Israel in many ways. There was more scope to criticise Israel for violating the rights of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. It also began to become more plausible to promote anti-Semitism in the coded guise of anti-Zionism.

The earliest references I have found so far to the new anti-Semitism are in French. Pierre-Andre Taguieff’s pathbreaking book Rising from the Muck, first published in French as La nouvelle judeophobie in 2002, refers to several texts from the late 1960s (p159-160). In 1968 Jacques Givet, a Swiss poet, had a book of essays published on the left against Israel as the new anti-Semitism. Another was a book by Leon Poliakov, a well-known historian, published in 1969. 

The earliest English language reference to the new anti-Semitism I have found so far is from a speech  by Abba Eban, then Israel’s foreign minister, in 1972. In an address to the American Jewish Congress he said that “The New Left is the author and progenitor of the new anti-Semitism: anti-Zionism is neo-anti-Semitism”. So his focus was also on the new left wing movements which had emerged in the 1960s.

Since then the term has gained wide currency. For example, in 1974 Arnold Forster and Benjamin Epstein, both of the Anti-Defamation League, had a book published entitled The New Anti-Semitism

There have also been variations on the name. Jake Wallis Simons used the term “Israelophobia” as the title for his acclaimed book on the subject. Although the author recognises woke ideas as a problem he fails to make a clear distinction with the anti-Semitism of the left which emerged in the 1960s.

The problem with the current discussion is that it does not grapple with what is new about what has happened since October 2023. It fails to take on the consequences of the demise of what used to pass for the left. It may exist in name but something fundamentally different has come to take its place. Some of the tropes may be similar but, despite appearances, today’s battles are not the same as those of a few years ago, let alone the 1960s.

There are many ways in which contemporary supporters of woke politics differ fundamentally from what was the left. For example, the left used to believe in the possibility of transcending the differences between people whereas the woke are attached to identity politics. For contemporary social justice warriors the main identity groups are essentially immutable. The left also used to believe in the idea of progress whereas now any kind of progress, and particularly economic growth, is viewed with intense suspicion.

This is relevant to the discussion of anti-Semitism because woke ideas have played a key role in giving it its new visceral force. Contemporary progressives tend to view Jews as the beneficiaries of white privilege and Israel as the embodiment of such privilege in the Middle East. Yet these ideas did not have common currency until recently.

Understanding the implications of the rise of woke anti-Semitism – as well as its interaction with Islamist ideas - is a key focus of this site.

Photo: "Minister van Buitenlandse Zaken van Israël Abba Eban (kop) even op Schiphol, wor, Bestanddeelnr 920-3882" by Ron Kroon / Anefo is marked with CC0 1.0.

The aftermath of the 7 October Hamas pogrom in Israel has made the rethinking of anti-Semitism a more urgent task than ever. Both the extent and character of anti-Semitism is changing. Tragically the open expression of anti-Semitic views is once again becoming respectable. It has also become clearer than ever that anti-Semitism is no longer largely confined to the far right. Woke anti-Semitism and Islamism have also become significant forces.

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